To the Editor — The single most critical question to the conservation of large carnivores is where they are supposed to live. After a long history of persecution, large carnivores became isolated from humans and restricted to remote wilderness and protected areas (Fig. 1). They have now become emblematic of such areas, epitomizing the commitment of modern societies to conservation1. Large carnivores are nowadays considered as species of wilderness value2, and the notion that wilderness and remoteness are essential requirements for their conservation has prevailed3, shaping their ranges in many places. Such framing legitimizes a land-sparing approach for large carnivore conservation.
This dogmatic view of large carnivores as creatures of wilderness, with human-dominated landscapes arbitrarily viewed as unsuitable habitats for these species, impedes our collective ability to envision conservation alternatives that do not include wilderness or remoteness (Fig. 1). By portraying large carnivores as architects in pristine ecosystems, we subordinate the justification for their conservation to the fulfilment of ecological services, ultimately delegitimizing other reasons, such as their aesthetic and intrinsic values. Consequently, large carnivores in multi-use landscapes may not be perceived and valued as equal to predators ranging in, for instance, Yellowstone National Park.
Over time, confinement of large carnivores to wilderness became a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing the symbolic link to wilderness as successive human generations lived in landscapes lacking large carnivores. Consequently, societies forget how to coexist with large carnivores, prompting fear and resentment when they return. An illustrative example is fear of wolves recolonizing areas near villages, because of the perception that ‘shy’ wolves are supposed to inhabit wild areas4. This view could trap large carnivores at low population sizes in isolated wilderness or protected areas, and preclude their recovery in many parts of the world. By not allowing people to mentally frame an alternative view where carnivores share the landscape, we create a catch-22 situation: we prevent large carnivores from occupying human-dominated landscapes based upon the belief that they can’t.
Land-sparing increasingly faces its own shortcomings for guiding large carnivore conservation as predators and people increasingly overlap. Given current projections of human population increase (up to 12 billion by 2100)5 and decrease of wilderness areas worldwide (one-tenth of the world's wilderness has been destroyed in two decades)6, the conservation of large carnivores would benefit from a radical shift freeing these species from wilderness, viewing them instead as normal and legitimate parts of human-dominated landscapes. Evidence showing the ability of large carnivores to persist in human-dominated landscapes is accumulating7,
Wilderness is worth being conserved for its own sake, not just because a particular species is associated with it. Extending large carnivore conservation approaches beyond the boundaries of wilderness and natural areas into a wider realm where people and large carnivores share the landscape may lead to the outcomes conservation biologists have been striving for since mid-1980s: functional populations of large carnivores that are demographically and genetically viable.
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The importance of fine-scale breeding site selection patterns under a landscape-sharing approach for wolf conservation
Biodiversity and Conservation (2018)